Analysis: Bench’s deep talent pool elevated UH to conference contender
The men’s basketball team is in the midst of its best season in a decade and is contending for the conference title.
A big contributor to that success is the depth of talent on the team’s bench, which has helped the team through tough games this season and will be even more necessary in Houston’s final games and the conference tournament. Players on the bench have taken more responsibility and delivered more point this season.
Last season, the Cougars’ starting five played more than 150 minutes combined in nine games and over 125 minutes in another 17 games. Few bench players were used to ease the burden on those five.
This season, the Cougars’ starters have gotten more breathers, which has left them more reliable on the court and less prone to injury.
The Cougars are 11-2 in games after three or less days of rest this season, while last season they were 7-6 in that situation.
Most of those 150-plus minute games resulted in losses, and the team was 3-5 in the following game. The ninth 150-plus minute game was their last game of the season.
The bench is making the most of its increased time, scoring 25.8 points a game compared to last year’s 17.3 average, while the starters have only scored four less points per game than last season.
Their overall playing time has risen by about 9.5 percent per game, about 15 minutes more than last year, and the points scored has risen similarly by 7.7 percent a game.
Players off the bench have led the team in points or rebounds in 13 of Houston’s 28 games.
The unit as a whole is doing well, but there are specific players that have excelled this season.
There are clear differences between top bench producers last year and this season.
Looking at a direct comparison, sophomore guard Armoni Brooks’ numbers have gone up while senior Wes VanBeck’s have gone down, but that doesn’t tell the complete story.
VanBeck is no longer the first option off the bench at the guard position and has not played as many minutes as last season.
Brooks has won the first spot on the bench with his 45 percent three-point shooting — third best in the AAC — and overall level of play.
He is a spark for this offense when one of the starting guards is having a rough day.
On the road against SMU, Brooks led the team with 23 points off the bench, and he sparked Houston’s game-winning scoring run with a big three in the final minutes of the Cincinnati game.
Meanwhile, the forward pair of freshman Fabian White Jr. and senior Nura Zanna have been major forces off the bench.
White Jr.’s offense is more than double his predecessor, and he has led the team in rebounds in five different games this season and had more than 10 rebounds three times. He has won AAC Rookie of the Week twice this year and will likely be one of the candidates for AAC Rookie of the Year.
Zanna has had mixed performances this season, fouling out six times thus far, but has led the team in rebounding twice this season and was key in Houston’s win against Cincinnati.
Zanna, White Jr. and junior starting forward Breaon Brady have shown that the Houston defense can stay strong with any one of them in the game.
The Cougars’ depth will need to play well with the conference tournament in a little over a week. Houston could end up playing three games in three days, putting the bench’s depth to the test once again.